Kollam to Kochi; Zanzibar Stonetown revisited; Sunset on garbage beach

I woke on the houseboat before dawn. Sheryl was already up, sitting and watching the still and misty lake. The peace was shattered soon after when the crew woke up and the bells started ringing madly onshore - even the churches in India are incredibly loud. We watched the sun rise huge and red over the palms and a million birds wake up.

We were back to Kollam by 8. We sat on our packs on a dusty patch of ground behind the bus station, out of view of the rickshaw drivers and hustlers, and discussed our options. We decided that there was nothing to keep us in Kollam. It was go on to Kochi or head back to Trivandrum early. I decided I wanted to go to Kochi, and Sheryl didn’t much care. This was a reversal from a few days ago when it was Sheryl who wanted to go to Kochi and me who didn’t care. We decided on the bus instead of the train because, well, we were at the bus station. This was a bad mistake. The road was terrible and the bus was worse - a bone-shaking, teeth-rattling ride. How they can have the nerve to call a service “superfast” when it takes four hours to go 160 kilometres is beyond me. The driver was a god-damned maniac - all over the road, and didn’t understand any speeds except screaming whiplash acceleration or jolting dead stop. Crammed into a too-small seat with a fidgeting Sheryl for four hours, I had no fun at all and vowed yet again never to take another bus. As an aside, it must be a comfortable thought to every Indian citizen that no matter how incompetent, psychotically aggressive or uncontrollably spastic you are, you always have a future as a bus driver.

We tried to get off the bus before the bus station, when we passed through the area of town we needed to be for the hotels and the restaurants. The jerk conductor wouldn’t let us, though, even though half the passengers had already slipped off the bus. We had to ride all the way to the bus station and then take a rickshaw back to where we’d been in the first place. We weren’t in Kochi proper, but rather in Ernakulam, the bigger urbanized area of which Kochi (Fort Kochin) is part. I’d rather have been in Fort Kochin, but it was on an island a ferry ride and a longish walk away and we didn’t feel like dealing with the packs and settled for a place close by.

After getting settled and grabbing some food, we took the ferry across the bay to the island. Ernakulam’s harbour is a very modern industrial container port. It was a surprising contrast to the little harbours and handmade boats we’ve become used to. The entire harbour was bathed in a hazy, diffuse white light that made even the heavy equipment look delicate and mirage-like.

From the moment of setting foot in Fort Kochin, I was reminded inescapably of Zanzibar’s Stonetown. A calmer Stonetown with a lot fewer people, but still very much reminiscent of the Spice Island. It had the same atmosphere and the same style of buildings with plastered walls. The fishing boats were shaped differently, but they were still fishing boats. The vendors were a lot less aggressive, but still present. The old town was less of a dodgy, dangerous maze of tumbledown buildings, but I still wouldn’t have wanted to push very hard on any of the walls. It felt so much like Zanzibar Lite it was spooky.

That feeling lasted until we reached the northern tip of the town and found more of the crazy Chinese fishing net contraptions. These ones were actually in use, dipping in and out of the water. We’d seen lots yesterday but not very closely and it was a good chance to have a look at the mechanism. The counterweights were ten or twelve heavy rocks and boulders suspended by ropes. They took eight men to operate - most on the weights or walking back and forth on the boom to raise or lower the net; one to pull the net in and one to scoop the catch out of the net. They were mostly operating for the tourists, I think - the fish being pulled in were pretty small. Every time a bigger one came out of the net a tourist would rush in to buy it and run off with it to one of the we-cook-it stalls along the waterfront. Not me. I wonder if any of them looked at the water? I wouldn’t touch anything that came out of that water, let alone eat it. It was filthy and swirling with trash and rotting dead things. Giant ships passing in the channel slicked the water with industrial waste and bilge. The shore was heaped with decaying trash and the ravens were having a grand time with the reeking carcass of a dog (I think), washed up on the beach with its head and legs all eaten to bone by the fish and its bloated belly spilling offal. I wondered to Sheryl if anyone ever shovelled the beach, but the answer was clearly no.

Away from the water Fort Kochin was nice, though touristy. We wandered for while and saw the centuries-old Dutch Cemetery, saw the church and went to a tearoom. I’d been promising to take Sheryl to a tearoom since Marrakesh, and so we sat in a nice teapot-decorated place with all the other old ladies and had a pot of excellent Darjeeling and some sort of intense chocolate cake. After so long without chocolate the endorphin rush nearly swept me away.

Sheryl was disappointed because she’d forgotten to bring batteries for her camera. We tried buying some from one of the street stalls (they lasted for one photo) and from one of the little shops (three photos) but had no luck until later when we came across a tourist shop with some camera stuff for sale. It was too late, though - she’d wanted to take a video of the nets in action, but by the time we got there again they’d finished for the day. So we watched the sun set behind the fishing nets from the breakwater, as gigantic and red going down in the evening as it had been rising that morning. It made even the dead dog and the garbage tides look pretty.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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